Eighteen year old wins McBAFTA

…and he’s lovin’ it!

It’s amazing what you can discover just by trawling through the customer database of the UK’s most dynamic broadcast and professional solutions provider. You’d expect to find that the CVP Group supplies kit to many big-name production companies, facilities houses and broadcasters. You’d expect their list of customers to include individuals who you’d recognise as leaders in their fields – top Producers, Directors, DoPs and Editors. But finding that the Group had supplied film-making equipment to an 18 year old lad from Balfron (a sleepy village 16 miles to the north of Glasgow that has a shop, a church, a school and not a fat lot else) caused, I must admit, the involuntary raising of an eyebrow. The discovery that this same young man had used that equipment to make a period feature film that won him Best Director at the 2010 BAFTA Scotland New Talent Awards was a bit like discovering the treasure of the Sierra Madre!
With my journalistic antennae at full twitch, I got straight on the trail of Michael Ferns, rising star of the Scottish film industry and, who knows, a future regular at Sir Elton’s glittering annual Tinseltown parties! I wanted to know how he came to be collecting such a prestigious award – was he part of a film-making dynasty, or had he (as I secretly hoped) discovered a love of movies, and a talent for making them for which there was no familial precedent – a kind of ‘gift from God’ as it were…

So Michael, many congratulations on your Best Director award…

Thank you!

How did you arrive here – a BAFA award-winner at such a young age? Is movie-making something that runs in the family – are you the secret son of Bill Forsyth…?

No, both my parents are teachers actually, but my Grandfather was a big influence – he was Director of the Scottish Film Council, and the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. He was responsible for establishing the GFT (Glasgow Film Theatre) and in 1960 was Director oif the Edinburgh Film Festival…

Right, so the movie-loving genes skipped a generation then?

I suppose you could look at it like that. I remember that it was when I was playing around with my Grandfather’s old VHS camcorder
that I first started to get the film-making bug. I spent many happy hours running up and down stairs, and in and out of the garden with the camera making ’simulator’ movies. I even used to provide the sound effects live in the background! Then one day I discovered that my Grandfather’s house was to be used as a location for Taggart, which was the most exciting thing ever! I was allowed the day off school to watch the proceedings – it was a fantastic experience and had such a profound effect on me. Immediately afterwards I began making silly spoof films such as ‘Westenders’ and ‘Slaggart’, using my long-suffering family as the cast. I was so into it all – I even attached a black flowerpot to the front of my camcorder to make it look more like the professional equipment!

So how did you edit these masterpieces?

At that stage there was no editing – everything had to be shot in sequence so the programmes kind of grew in the camera. Not long afterwards I managed to get hold of a webcam for my computer, heralding a new era in Ferns film-making. For a while every film I made had to be shot within the confines of one room because the wire on the camera wouldn’t reach any further!

But presumably it wasn’t long before you’d got all the basic equipment – a shoot kit and some editing software – allowing you to spread your wings a little further than the confines of your bedroom?

Yeah, and again it was thanks to my Grandfather. He let me have his camcorder on permanent loan and I made literally dozens of short films, experimenting all the time with different styles and genres. Looking back, there was a recurring theme though – everything seemed to feature dramatic close-ups of fake blood!

And again, it was your family in the starring roles?

Yes, and my friends too – everyone was so supportive, doing their best as actors and allowing their houses to be turned totally upside down to provide the sets – it was brilliant fun!

We mustn’t forget that you were in your early teens at this stage – what about schoolwork – was there any time left for that?

I used to drive my parents (who are teachers remember) to distraction by staying up half the night editing, and then getting up before dawn to finish things off or re-edit bits…. and yes, I used to get my fair share of lectures about focussing on school studies! I think I knew that I had to find an acceptable balance between my passion for film-making on the one hand,and school and family life on the other – I’m sure finding solutions that were acceptable to all parties sharpened up my negotiating skills quite considerably! During one three-week camping holiday in France, I managed to persuade my parents to devote one day a week to me for filming. That was enough for me to return with four completed short films – “The Gift”, a supernatural tale shot in and around Lisieux Cathedral with loads of dramatic effects – “Split Second”, a Sliding Doors-inspired story featuring my Dad cycling round French villages (mostly shot hanging out of the back of our car) – “Beach Belles”, a comic piece featuring my sisters, and an ‘arty’ piece shot on the ferry as we crossed The Channel. I spent the vast majority of that holiday inside the tent editing on my lap-top, so I didn’t get much of a tan!

Did any of your school-mates share your passion for film, or were you a lone voice?

In the early days I was too wrapped up with my obsession to notice, but in my 5th year (aged 16) the school agreed to help fund and produce a short horror film called “Blind Man’s Bluff” which I directed. It meant we could hire a load of professional gear from Mitcorp in Glasgow which was great, and the whole thing was entirely crewed by 40 enthusiastic school pupils and shot over two freezing days, using all sorts of blood and other gory special effects. It was my first taste of working with a team of film-makers, and it was marvellous!

So did other school-based projects follow?

In a way, yes. My next film was a 40 minute Teen Drama called “When I grow up” and it explored the themes of bullying and violence. My uncle and grandparents generously funded a week’s equipment hire (from Mitcorp again), and my parents provided transport, board and lodging for a whole bunch of teenagers…

That was brave…

Yeah, it was kind of fine except that they did have to redecorate the bathroom when it was all over! So my family, once again, were enormously supportive – my father even wrote the entire music score – and on this project I also managed to get a help from some local celebrities: Fiona Kennedy recorded a song for the soundtrack. some of the music was performed by Bill Chandler, the head of strings at the RNSO, BBC News presenter Rhona McLeod mocked up a news report and Richard Gordon, another BBC reporter played one of the supporting roles.

And how was it received?

Very well indeed – in fact the Council and the Police considered adding it to the bank of material they use for PSE (Personal and Social Education) in schools.

So you left school with a well-established track record as a film-maker, and presumably the ambition to earn your living in the film or TV industry?

Exactly! I had a pretty good portfolio of work to take around, including a number of music promos I’d made (and am still making) for ‘Highland Heartbeat’, Fiona Kennedy’s music show. I was fortunate enough to win a place to study Digital Film and Television at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSMAD), which is where I’ve been since last September.

So how did the BAFTA Award come about?

I was approached by my local film society who offered to find funding to produce a period feature film based on the legend of the Reverend Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle. I knew almost nothing about him, but set about researching his story, and in the process became totally captivated…

So, what’s Kirk about?

It’s an 88 minute film, so it’s kind of difficult to precis it in a few words! Robert Kirk was Minister of the parish of Aberfoyle in 1692, a time when clergymen were often also gentlemen scientists, documenting wildlife and rocks whilst also researching theology. But Kirk’s research was unusual – he studied fairies and elves. Many country people still believed in ‘the little folk’, but a university-educated man like Kirk was expected to know better, not least because the existence of such Pagan beings was anathema to Christian teachings. The film is a drama loosely based on Kirk’s life, his struggle to persuade his wife to share his beliefs, and the actions to which he is driven in the attempt. We shot it in just 19 days in June 2009 on location at Loch Lomond and Culross conservation village in Fife.

Now I know it was made on a very limited budget – tell me a bit about the kit that you used to produce it.

We shot everything with a Sony Z1 mounted on a Manfrotto tripod, or a Glidecam – we also used a Hollywood Microdolly, a Kino-flo Diva kit for lighting, and the sound was captured using a Sennheiser shogun microphone. We edited on Adobe Premiere Pro. I hope it shows that you can produce some amazing results using what is, in general movie-making terms, very inexpensive kit.

Absolutely! Kirk’s had some truly glowing reviews, particularly from the leading film journalist M.J.Simpson www.mjsimpson.co.uk/reviews/kirk.html) He says it’s an almost perfect film, ticking all the boxes, both technical and artistic – and he’s at pains to point out that he arrived at that conclusion without any allowances being made for your tender years…

Yes, his review is very positive…

And to support what he’s saying, it’s worth pointing out that before you won your BAFTA, Kirk also won Best Independent Feature at the 2009 Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester – and that was against all-comers, not just other young film-makers!

Yes – it was a fabulous honour to win that award, but I think quite a number of people were surprised when almost everyone who was involved in the film elected not to celebrate with a drink at the bar – and even more so when they realised that for us to do so would have been breaking the law!

Quite! So what’s next – how do you top this?

I’m already in the pre-production stage for my next feature film, which funnily enough is based on the same story as Kirk…

What, a remake? Already!?

Well, kind of! One of the companies we approached about distributing Kirk was Workshop Productions, an English company. They offered us two options – either they’d release Kirk under their DVD label or secure funding to make the new film. I chose the new production option!

It seems a strange choice on the face of it – almost suggesting that you’re not totally happy with the version of Kirk you’ve already made?

Not at all, but you have to understand that we made that film with a total budget of just £7,000. Workshop Productions are talking about a budget of half a million pounds for the new film, and that’s going to open up possibilities that I’ve never had before. It’s such an exciting prospect!
They’re still looking for private investors to add more weight to the project, and they’re hoping to secure the services of a big-name star, which should attract even more funding.

Colin Mendham at Mitcorp wanted me to ask “since everyone knows that being a CVP Group customer is the major reason for your success to date, can we assume that you’ll be continuing to deal with us for your next project too?” Cheeky Mare! Sorry Michael, that’s a cheap trick and I don’t expect any response!

OK, that’ll be a ‘No comment’ then – I’ve always wanted to say that, so thanks for the opportunity!

You’re very welcome! Thanks for talking to us, and the very best of luck with the new film from everyone here at The Iris.

You can discover more about Michael Ferns at www.michaelfernsfilms.com and Workshop Productions at www.workshop-productions.co.uk